One leading conservative ayatullah declared, during Friday prayers at Tehran University, that people protesting Iran's election are waging war on God. Ayatullah Ahmad Khatami demanded that those calling for demonstrations be "ruthlessly and savagely" punished. Yet just a day earlier, one of the country's most senior mullahs, Grand Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri a longtime liberal critic of the regime branded the authorities' response to the election protests un-Islamic. And a second leading conservative theologian, Grand Ayatullah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, called for the dispute over the election to be resolved through "national conciliation."
To an outside world accustomed to viewing Iranian politics as a conclave of like-minded mullahs, the current turmoil within Iran's political and religious establishment defies explanation. The conflict between two regime insiders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has created the most profound political crisis in the Islamic republic's 30-year history. Both men proclaim their fealty to the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution, both claim the backing of senior clergy, and both appeal to Iranians' sense of Shi'ite justice to rally support.
The fact that such discord is possible among factions that all claim allegiance to the principle of guidance by the clergy is rooted in the distinct nature of Shi'ite Islam. Shi'ism differs from the Sunni tradition in a handful of important ways not only in its belief in who was the legitimate heir to the Prophet Muhammad's leadership of the community of the faithful after his death, but also in its attitudes toward political authority and devotion. But one of the most important differences is the Shi'ite tradition's unique practice of ijtihad the use of independent reasoning to pass new religious rulings. While Sunni Islam effectively abandoned ijtihad in the 10th century, the practice remains an essential core of Shi'ism. The result is that virtually every aspect of Shi'a doctrine, from the principle of clerical rule to minute matters of religious observance, is open to differing interpretation and has been debated throughout history.
The highest authorities in the Shi'ite tradition are grand ayatullahs, who are first and foremost jurists. And the most senior among them are the marja jurists considered of sufficient learning that they are objects of emulation by other Shi'ites. But Shi'ites are able to choose their marja from more than 20 currently living in different parts of the world, representing a range of different interpretations of Islamic law and tradition.
Shi'ism's fluidity has helped it adapt to the changing world; it's useful, for example, to have a means of jettisoning 7th century punishments such as the chopping off of hands from canonic Islamic law. Liberal ayatullahs have even issued fatwas condemning suicide bombings and legal codes that discriminate against women. But the flexibility inherent in ijtihad also means that key matters of faith and politics can be the subject of eternal debate and dispute.
That much is clear in the very history of the Islamic republic. In the early 1970s, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini decided to challenge the repressive regime of the Shah by devising a new model for Shi'a government. Khomeini was a marja, and he interpreted the Koran and Shi'a scripture to conclude that God had decreed for Islamic government in the absence of the faith's 12th Imam, who would return one day in the messianic tradition and launch his own reign of justice. Khomeini called this vision of the clergy's being given authority over governance velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist.
Many of the marja were skeptical of Khomeini's interpretation. Some examined his sources and line of reasoning and found it lacking; others felt it ran counter to Shi'a theology, convinced that in the 12th Imam's absence, the clergy had no place in politics at all. The powerful ayatullahs of Iraq were particularly sour on this novel approach, which they considered deviant. But because the ayatullahs' critique of Khomeini's model arose from the belief that the clergy had no place in politics and would be sullied by involvement in political conflict, they mounted no challenge to his movement. Indeed, the tradition most opposed to Khomeini's vision of clerical political leadership is now referred to as "quietism." So the dissenting ayatullahs stood by silently as Khomeini took power in 1979.